This is the second installment in a series of monthly interviews from our friends at Chicago Music Professionals (CHIMP), a Chicago-based music industry networking group. CHIMP’s Kirstin Osgood met with Billy Helmkamp, owner of Chicago’s beloved Sleeping Village and the Whistler to talk about the challenges of being a venue owner during COVID, his favorite 2020 Chicago records and their shared experience singing in a Chicago punk rock acapella group.
EL: I noticed you have a film degree. How did you go from film to a club owner and active in the Chicago music scene?
Billy: I’ve always been active in the arts community. Prior to opening the Whistler, my partner (Rob Brenner) and I collaborated on a constant stream of projects, ranging from music videos to gig posters, to organizing concerts and art exhibitions, to releasing music through our record label. During that time, I worked at a film and video post-production house and Rob worked in commercial photography, and we were both saving our money and laying the groundwork for what would become the Whistler. At first, we had a list of about 50 different things we wanted to do with the Whistler space. Those ideas included art studios for ourselves and our friends, a recording studio in the basement, a record store, a coffee shop — but live music was always central to the plan. In fact, up until the 11th hour, the Whistler was going to be an all-ages music venue. It was only later on in the process that we decided to apply for a liquor license.
EL: Are there any artists, records, genres of music or other outlets that you find yourself drawn to during these strange times?
Billy: My taste in music has always been wildly eclectic. That was the case when I was younger, and it still holds true today. I enjoy most everything outside of Nashville pop and brutal noise. In recent months, I’ve been listening to a lot of ambient music. Part of that is it’s relaxing, which feels like a necessary thing on most days right now, but I’m also doing a lot of biking on the Des Plaines River Trail, and I’ve found that to be a good soundtrack to cruising along the river.
Speaking of biking, my wife Cole, keeps telling me that I should invest in a new bike because I’m on it so much these days. But I’m still riding the bike my parents got for me as a high school graduation present twenty-five years ago. I love that bike so much. I can’t even begin to guess how many miles I’ve put on that thing. (Laughter).
EL: Who was the last act to play Sleeping Village before COVID hit?
EL: What Chicago acts should we be keeping our eye on?
Billy: One album I’ve listened to more than any others this summer is the new album from Dehd.
EL: Yes, me too!
Billy: It’s so good. I’ve been following them for a couple years, but “Flowers of Devotion” is on a whole new plane. It’s one of those rare records that I’ll listen to all the way through and then flip it back over to side A as soon as it’s over.
I’m also a longtime fan of drummer Quin Kirchner and his new album is phenomenal. It’s easy to lose track of all the bands Quin’s played in — Wild Belle, NOMO, In Tall Buildings, Heath & Beauty, to name a few — and he’s played in some sort of configuration with just about every exceptional jazz musician in town, but his latest release is a great place to start if you’re new to his music.
Anyone who’s been following the Chicago jazz scene for the past decade will recognize the names of those who play on Quin’s new album, like Matt Ulery, Greg Ward, Nick Mazzarella, Jason Stein, Nate Lepine, Nick Broste, Rob Clearfield. It’s really a powerhouse lineup.
We’ve hosted a Monday night jam session at the Whistler for a couple years, and Quin and Matt (Ulery) have led that series. Those two guys have performed on the Whistler stage more than any other artists. They’re such a big part of the Whistler community.
EL: Changing directions to the issues facing the music industry currently. What troubles you most about how COVID has impacted the music community and your venues?
Billy: As far as hardest hit industries go, we’re right at the top. We’re what is considered a ”final phase” industry, in that we will be among the last to be allowed to reopen and resume business at anything resembling pre-COVID levels. Of all the challenges venues face right now, the most obvious one is that we’re completely closed. We’re not able to host live music, which is why we exist in the first pace. And we’ve closed for seven months with no revenue, but those bills keep pouring in and property taxes are due.
The PPP program was ill-suited for our industry. We’re closed, we don’t have work to offer our staff. The ability to use PPP funds is tied to being open for business and bringing your staff back on, which we’re unable to do right now.
EL: A lot of venues are turning to streaming concerts online. Can you tell us a little bit about what you are doing and how it’s working?
Billy: We’ve partnered with other promoters on a number of live streams and we’ve offered our venue as a filming location for a few artists, but we’re unable to go all in on livestreaming. Frankly, we just don’t have the resources to do that right now.
EL: You’re active in the Chicago Independent Venue League (CIVL) and the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA). Could you give us insight into your participation and your current priorities? Legislation that’s on the table has stalled but can you give us an update about what relief that would provide and your involvement in that effort?
Billy: Locally, I’m a founding member of CIVL and serve on its board of directors as the organization’s Secretary. We’re working to support Chicago venues by providing them resources, information, and advocacy at the national, state and local levels. At a local level, we’ve held near weekly phone calls with our contacts in the mayor’s office and with DCASE (Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events). At the state level, we’re in contact with folks at DCEO (Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity) to get targeted relief for Illinois venues and “final phase” industries like ours. And at the national level, myself and a number of other CIVL members are active with NIVA. I serve on the Advocacy Committee, which is tasked with lobbying Congress for targeted assistance for the country’s live music and performance venues. We’ve had some success getting the Save Our Stages Act included in the latest stimulus package, and most of the Illinois delegation in Congress has been supportive, but currently things have stalled out in DC. Bottom line: Our main objective is helping venues through to the other side of the pandemic, while supporting our staff and the performers as best we can, in the meantime.
EL: You’re a founder of Sustain Chicago Music, awarding Chicago musicians with grants during this hard time. Can you tell us a bit about this campaign, its origins and how music fans can support your efforts?
Billy: Sure. Sustain is a collaborative effort between the Whistler, Sleeping Village and I Am Logan Square, which produces the Logan Square Arts Festival each year. The idea for Sustain sprang from some of our conversations shortly after we decided to pull the plug on this year’s Logan Square Arts Festival. It was important to all of us on the festival committee to find ways to continue to benefit the community.
Yes, we’re trying to help venues through this crisis, and yes, we’re all trying to see our staff through it as best we can, but let’s not forget about why we work in live music in the first place —it’s the musicians and the music they create. Sustain’s goal is to provide grants to Chicago-area artists so they can continue working on music. I’ve read that musicians make about three quarters of their income from live performances. So, with live music being an impossibility right now, this is one way to put musicians back to work, so to speak, while continuing to advance Chicago’s rich musical legacy. The grants that Sustain will be awarding are made possible by crowdfunding, as well as corporate and philanthropic donations. And a unique aspect to it is this: If someone donates $40 or more, they’re able to nominate a musician to receive a $1,000 grant. Not only is it an opportunity to give, it’s also an opportunity to help guide how those funds are distributed.
EL: Even after we’ve recovered from this crisis, it seems likely there will be some changes we’ll continue to keep in practice: changes in spending, cleaning protocols, zoom meetings, using more time for creativity, etc. Are there any practices or improvements you can see as a business owner that may come from this hard time that are beneficial to the community or your venues over time?
Billy: On a practical, day-to-day operations level, I see a lot more remote working in our future.
EL: Even for venues?
Billy: Yes, even for venues. For instance, prior to the shutdown, Sleeping Village’s marketing, booking and production departments all worked out of a tiny little room sandwiched between the beer cooler and green room. That won’t be practical, or safe, for quite some time, so I see a lot more remote working in our future. On a more wide-scale and general level, the level of collaboration and mutual aid within the creative community has increased dramatically. People naturally understand that the only way through a situation like this is by working together. So when we do come out on the other side — and we will eventually — the creative community is going to be that much stronger for it.
EL: The music industry itself is known for being hard to organize. That has not been the case since the pandemic.
Billy: That’s fair. Promoters and venues are historically, fiercely independent. But it’s been amazing to see people coming together and working for a common cause. NIVA is an obvious example of this collaborative effort, and really highlights what you can accomplish when working together.
EL: Final question, and for the record: You used to sing in the punk-rock/new-wave acapella group, the Blue Ribbon Glee Club (as did I). As a founding member, do you think you could be convinced to perform with them again if there’s a 20-year reunion show? (Laughter).
Billy: (Laughter). If someone twisted my arm hard enough, I could be convinced. I was with the Glee Club for the first two years of its existence. I think it was 2006 to 2008. Coincidentally, somebody from the Glee Club just emailed me a few days ago, asking about that seven-inch Whistler Records put out in 2009!
Did you know the Whistler was the Glee Club’s old practice space? That was in the time between when Rob and I demo-ed the first floor, and when construction on the bar began.
EL: That’s so cool. I didn’t know that bit of history. It’s nice having the Glee Club in common with you. Thank you for everything that you are doing for Chicago’s musicians, the community, and for the work you are doing at the state and national levels as well.
Billy: Thank you. It’s been fun catching up with you.