When I profiled Bill Salas in April 2007, the man better known as Brenmar was 21 years old and described his life as a "series of phases"—and at that point those phases already included indie-rap beat maker, bedroom electro-pop auteur, and experimental musician (in which guise he combined psychedelic drumming with electronic noise). Given Salas's youth, this stylistic hopscotch came off like a young artist's search for his niche. Six years later, he seems to have found it.
In late 2007 the Chicago native left town for Brooklyn to drum for These Are Powers, and for several years he toured and recorded extensively with the trio as its sound evolved from fantastically art-damaged rock to an even more fascinating multifarious hybrid of rock and several kinds of electronic music, among them Chicago house and dark British sounds such as dubstep and grime. By the time These Are Powers dissolved in 2010—victim to what Salas describes as "personal differences, lack of money, the typical band bullshit"—he was already transitioning from drumming to programming, in the process launching a new version of the Brenmar alter ego that's aimed at the dance floor.
So far it's been a hit, at least among dance-music listeners who have leading-edge tastes. With the help of regular coverage by influential blogs and magazines—Resident Advisor, Fact, the Fader—and appearances alongside big-name acts such as Major Lazer and Flosstradamus, Salas is starting to attract fans from well outside his stomping grounds, which you might describe as enclaves of tastemaking New Yorkers in Brooklyn and thereabouts. His schedule of DJ gigs has grown so full and so far-flung that it's on par with his touring itinerary in These Are Powers. "I'm always on call," he says—and when I reach him, he's in Ottawa on the penultimate date of a Canadian excursion with LA-based producer Salva. In late February and early March he'll tour Europe, and a month later he's going to Australia for a couple weeks.
One of the few constants in Salas's output over the years is that it's really hard to categorize. Even when you feel like you can unpack his influences on a particular track, his interpretation is always sufficiently skewed to poke out of any box. The sounds he's drawn from lately have included a couple decades-old varieties of house—underground 80s tracks and the kind of hot-selling 90s stuff, inflected with pop R&B, that used to be marketed under the broad rubric "club music"—but the way he chops them up and rearranges them recalls contemporary DJ-producers such as Diplo and Lunice. The samples are diced more finely than in the originals, in denser, more strobelike configurations, and the feel is hyperactive and tweaky.
Diplo and to a lesser extent Lunice are revered on the hip fringes of the EDM scene, and the fact that Salas takes after them is no accident. Lately he's developed a populist streak that all but completely reverses the self-conscious edginess of his noise days—in other words, he wants to please a crowd, and he wouldn't mind if it were a big one.
"After having my run of punk, DIY, indie-rock, and noise shows," he says, "I just wanted to go into the club and have people dance. Just that vibe, and the girls."
"I did my little soul searching and all of that shit for years before I found out what I was really good at and what people appreciate from me too," he explains. "Because you can't do it by yourself, you know what I mean? You have to consider who you're playing to and who you're making music for and who's listening."
At the moment, he says, Timbaland and the Neptunes are his guiding lights. "These guys were flipping pretty original, weird noises, but having millions of people fall in love with it. And that's maybe the biggest challenge of all . . . how do you push forward creatively while still having people love what you do?"
One lesson Salas has learned from those production juggernauts is the importance of finding the right vocal talent. Arguably the biggest songs of his dance-music career is last spring's "Wavvy," produced for rapper Mykki Blanco, whose persona seems designed for fans to obsess over. He's also collaborating with other New York avant-rappers, including Le1f, Zebra Katz, and Tigga Calore (with whom he says he's working on some "vogue ballroom vibes"), plus Chicago drill-scene princess Sasha Go Hard ("She chose the craziest, weirdest beat I sent her"). Some of their vocal performances are on the DJ mix Salas is about to release in cooperation with V Magazine, and others will turn up on his first-ever mixtape of entirely original material, which he's working on now and plans to put out later this year.
Salas's current output doesn't challenge its audience as aggressively as the stuff he was doing six years ago, but he says that making it is considerably more challenging for him. He laughs at the notion that making broadly appealing pop is somehow easier than making difficult experimental music. "No, it's so hard. It's the hardest thing I've ever tried to do."
"Anyone can make a noise record," he insists. What Timbaland and the Neptunes can do, on the other hand, is really special. "If you can make some weird shit and have it pop off like that," he says, "I don't think there's anything cooler to me."
It's possible that this stage in Salas's career will turn out to be a phase too, but I'd be surprised. He finally seems comfortable enough to stay in a groove, digging deeper into it rather than skipping to the next one. Salas agrees, not least because he feels like he finally has a musical identity. "If you were to ask me what Brenmar is," he says, "I could actually tell you."
Correction: This article has been amended to correctly reflect that These Are Powers dissolved in 2010, that at the time of publication Brenmar's V Magazine mix had not been released, and that one of the photographs of Brenmar was shot by Ryan Mikail.