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Renaissance Man: and interview with Billy Helmkamp of The Whistler (2421 N. Milwaukee)

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photo courtesy of Time Out Chicago

photo courtesy of Time Out Chicago

On a snowy Wenesday night mid February I had the pleasure of speaking with Billy Helmkamp, co-owner of The Whistler, a new gallery, music venue, and bar in Logan Square.  He made me a Long-Faced Dove, a refreshing, pale pink tequila and ginger beer cocktail, and answered my questions about the new space.

Kelly Reaves: When did you open up here?

Billy Helmkamp:  We opened on September 26, 2008.

KR:  What inspired you to open?

BH:  The other owner, Rob Brenner, bought this building about three and a half years ago.  We initially wanted to make it an all-ages music venue and workspace so we could be a space for our friends who do silk-screening and make t-shirts.  The idea behind it went through some variations.  At first, we wanted to do twenty things with the space and we widdled it down to music and an art gallery and there were some other arts related events thrown in like readings series and theatres coming in.  We had a rough idea of what we wanted to do with the building and figured it out over the course of six months to a year.

KR:  Why did you decide to focus on music and art?

BH:  That’s primarily what we’re interested in.  My educational background is in film and video, and my day job was working in video.  I shot concerts for west coast bands that were coming through Chicago.  

KR:  And you and Rob manage a record label together?

BH:  Yeah

KR:  How long has that been around?

BH: We’ve been doing that for six years.  It was operating under another name… we basically killed off the label prior to opening this place and re-launched it under the name “Whistler Records.”

KR:  Why did you choose this location (2421 N. Milwaukee Ave.) for the bar?

BH:  That was entirely Robs’ thing.  He spent a year and a half looking at buildings.  His primary focus was in Logan Square and Pilsen.  He had been living in Pilsen at the time so he knew that area pretty well.  Before that he lived in Logan Square so he knew this area pretty well… and he knew that they were pretty up and coming neighborhoods.

KR: And they’re affordable

BH: Yeah, exactly.  Also, he was looking for a place that allowed him to live upstairs and work downstairs.

KR:  I read about a brewpub opening up right around here soon.

BH:  Yeah, Josh Deth is opening that; it’s called Revolution Brewing.  It’s a block South of here on Milwaukee.  He’s a great guy.  He owns Handlebar.  He was the director of the Logan Square Chamber of Commerce, he’s super involved in the neighborhood.  When we were going through the process of opening this place someone recommended that I talk to him because he’s been through a lot of what we had to go through as far as having public meetings and whatnot.  I called him up, we talked for forty-five minutes and he answered all of the questions I had and we just went on tangents… he’s a really friendly guy.

KR:  Why did you decide to serve alcohol here?

BH:  To be economically sustainable.  Part of that mission too is because we don’t ever want to charge a cover at the door.  We like the idea of doing free shows, so if we didn’t charge a cover and didn’t sell anything in here we’d basically be broke within the first month of business.  At that point we had to tweak our idea, so we decided to go with the traditional live music setup with a tavern license and all.

KR:  Do your neighbors complain about the noise?

BH:  No.  One neighbor mentioned something about a show we had a couple weeks ago, but it was a pretty loud show.  And the neighbor wasn’t terribly upset or anything, he just said, “you know, our glasses were shaking.”  But we typically don’t have that loud of music.  Tonight is jazz night, so it shouldn’t be too loud.

KR:  I also heard that you have a metal night.  Is that true?

BH:  Yeah.  We were doing it on Tuesday nights but we moved it to the third Saturday of every month.  It’s called “Screams from the Gutter.”  It’s metal, punk, hardcore, grindcore, etc.  One of the main DJs we have here goes by the name “The Librarian” and “Screams from the Gutter” is his night.  He also does a night called “My Sebadoah Called Life,” which is the indie pop night.  He’s really good at coming up with themes.

KR:  I read that you’re participating in a festival in August called the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival.  Can you tell me about it?

BH:  It’s something we’ve been involved with for the last three years.  It used to be called The Boulevard Arts Fest.  It was held in Palmer Square Park; just a couple blocks south of here.  We ended up moving it out of the park for logistical reasons, like there’s no power, so we decided to have the festival on Milwaukee Avenue instead.  We’re not going to shut down the street or anything.  The rough parameters are going to be from the Logan Square circle up Milwaukee to Diversey and Kimball. There are roughly thirty people on the planning committee.  Local businesses are going to be encouraged to have sidewalk sales.  We’re trying to rent three empty storefronts out for the weekend and set up art galleries.  In some of the parking lots we’ll set up stages and have live music. We want to turn Logan Square auditorium into a big gallery.  There will be street performances… just random stuff like stilt walkers, sword swallowers, and fire breathers out on the street. 

KR:  Why did you decide to make this space look like a gallery from the street instead of a bar?

BH:  We do our programming more like a gallery than a bar.  It kind of goes along with the idea of free shows.  We want to show free art- we wanted our gallery to be open twenty-four hours a day.  It faces the street so it never closes, and to see it you don’t necessarily have to come inside.  And we think it makes the block look a little cooler.  We don’t have a sign, we kind of like the speakeasy vibe of it. And there was already a lot of interesting stuff in the storefronts on this block.  The botanica has a big pirate in the window.  The photography studio next door has some interesting photos up, and the western wear place on the corner has a life sized stuffed ox with a wagon hitched to it.

KR:  Do you rotate the art that’s up?

BH:  The gallery rotates every other month.  And inside here is more of a work in progress.  We have photos of our parents up most of the time.

KR:  How do you choose the art?

BH:  Josh Dumas curates the gallery.  He’s been real involved in the Chicago art scene for a while.  He’s got half a dozen projects going on all the time.  Tonight he’s doing a performance art piece in the loop where thirty people pop up out of nowhere to do dance on the street. 

KR:  Do you get a pretty mixed crowd in here?

BH:  Yeah.  It’s mostly locals, but it’s pretty diverse, more diverse than you might expect.  I do read reviews of people complaining that it’s a hipster crowd but it was probably just the twenty people standing around that person that night.  It changes every night.  It depends on the program.  Last night we had a table of people in their fifties and sixties- that was the crowd that was brought in by the bands.  And tonight it’s jazz night so it’ll probably be different, and then tomorrow is hip-hop so it’ll definitely be different.

KR:  The Whistler is becoming known for the drinks, too.  Can you tell me a little about them?

BH:  Well, we always have eight on our drink list and they change seasonally.  Our mixologist, Paul, invented six of the drinks on the current list.  He’s been a professional bartender for a long time.  We were very lucky to get him, he was a friend of a friend… he moved here from Las Vegas looking for work just in time for us to hire him.  It was serendipitous. 

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Written by Kelly Reaves

March 19, 2009 at 11:41 pm

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