By Michael Hirtzer
Sonotheque didn’t become one of Chicago’s best clubs by catering to the masses. Quite the opposite, says Joe Bryl, music director and one of the club’s three equal partners. Bryl wants to challenge his audience as much as possible. A night of experimental German techno may be followed by a night of modern African pop music. “Any night you walk through the doors, you have no idea what to expect,” Terry Alexander says, who along with Donnie Madia rounds out the three owners of Sonotheque.
“That’s my job, to not be normal,” Bryl says. Under his direction, Sonotheque is an exercise in extreme variety, with different music played practically every night—bhangra, boogaloo, disco, funk, house, tropicalia, not to mention crazy-popular monthly parties like Dark Wave Disco and a Flosstradamus residency.
Bryl runs the club as if curating a film center or running a restaurant with a menu that changes every day. “It’s not a form of high art or elitism,” Bryl says. “There’s just too many venues, too many opportunities, to find out about the most mundane. I don’t need to do that. That certainly isn’t and will never be my focus.”
It may not sound like the best business model, and it isn’t. But Sonotheque is more about art than commerce. “Any business would love to do both, but you have to choose one or the other,” Alexander says.
The model, however, has turned Sonotheque into a destination point for cutting-edge music. A few weeks ago, it was named the best club by the popular Web site Everyoneisfamous.com, run by photographer Clayton Hauck. “Sonotheque is definitely one of Chicago’s most respected clubs,” Hauck says. “It attracts kids ‘in the know’ so to say, and perhaps because of them everyone else follows.”
For Bryl and his two partners, the club is a labor of love, something, they say, they will never compromise.
“I don’t think at this point we would ever sell out,” says Madia, who also co-owns Blackbird restaurant, named one of the fifty best in the country in 2001 by Gourmet. “It’s not in our makeup.”
“[Sonotheque] is something we always wanted to do,” says Alexander, who also owns or co-owns Danny’s Tavern, part of the Mia Francesca chain and the Violet Hour.
For Bryl, whose resume reads like a history lesson in Chicago club culture, Sonotheque is like a baby, a child in which he imposes a set of very high standards. “The strength of Sonotheque is also the burden because the audience never knows what it’s going to get,” Bryl says. “The scope of Sonotheque’s music can be quite overwhelming to the regular customer.”
Bryl, who has been spinning records since the early 1980s, runs the club like he organizes his DJ sets. He says he doesn’t like to play the same record more than once a year. At Sonotheque, he works with more than twenty-five different promoters and hosts more than thirty different residencies.
Even the club itself is imposing. The ultra-modern exterior looks like a combination of a giant G5 Apple computer and, well, the Apple Store. Driving down Chicago Avenue in West Town, you can’t miss it—aside from the fact that it has no sign. Inside, the DJ booth is encased in a large bubble, surrounded by grey couches and bar stools that could be pulled out of a 1960s sci-fi film, and that just might be what’s playing on one of the several projection screens that usually play rare movies (during a recent visit, the Lucha libre film “Champions of Justice” draped the wall).
Then there is the sound system, the first of its kind in Chicago (although other clubs have since followed suit) by England’s Funktion One. Designed to highlight tonality rather than bass, the sound at Sonotheque is akin to wearing a giant pair of studio-quality headphones. “Its Funktion One sound system is the best in Chicago,” says techno DJ Kate Simko, who along with DJ Sassmouth throws a monthly party called Wake Up!
“I can stand in the middle of the room and hear all the intricacies and complex polyrhythms in the music while still getting that warm feeling in my gut I crave from the bass,” says Samantha “Sassmouth” Kern.
Many of the promoters who hold their events at Sonotheque could hold them at larger clubs but choose Sonotheque for its quality and musical credibility.
“I’ve gotten a lot of offers from other places… but when it comes down to it, I don’t see this anywhere else aside from Sonotheque,” says Mark Gertz, DJ and founder of Dark Wave Disco. He has held his parties there for nearly three years. He says the club’s location—the nearest El stop is about five blocks away—is part of the charm; people have to seek it out. “It’s a little bit more of a destination point,” Gertz says.
Gertz says he recently pulled the plug on a weekly Dark Wave Disco offshoot at Debonair Social Club to focus more on the monthly party at Sonotheque. “I like it in a slightly smaller place,” he says. “We could do [the party] in a bigger venue but I like there being a hype around it.”
Sonotheque is not perfect. An oft-heard complaint is that the club is not designed for dancing at all. “I personally dislike the layout,” Hauck, the photographer, says. “It seems more like a cool lounge than a packed dance party.” Other times, Sonotheque’s crowd can be male-dominated, like the club’s recent five-year anniversary party with Stones Throw label owner Peanut Butter Wolf. That comes with the territory, Bryl says. A lot of Stones Throw’s fan base (myself included) tend to be awkward record collectors sporting hoodies and caps pulled over their eyes—not the most social of people.
Still, Bryl says, the night pulled about 250 people, a bit off of Sonotheque’s more successful events, which draw 400-500 people over the course of the evening. With such a variety of music played at the club, its clientele has to follow closely the calendar of events, or at least be willing to listen to unfamiliar music.
“It does create a need for the audience to be willing,” Bryl says. A customer may want to hear the latest broken-beat tracks from England but may find minimal Italian techno instead. The common thread, Bryl says, is quality. “You’re not going to hear ‘(Crank That) Soulja Boy,’” Bryl says. “Just like we don’t go to Charlie Trotter’s and ask for a hotdog, which is not to say I don’t like a good hotdog.”
For Bryl, Sonotheque is the latest stop in a storied career in Chicago’s nightlife scene.
Born June 10, 1954, Bryl grew up in a blue-collar Roman Catholic home, a block away from the stockyards in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. “I was just like anybody growing up in Chicago in the sixties,” he says.
In his late teens, he started hearing Stockhausen and Kraut Rock on the famed Triad radio station, eventually leading him to the Yardbirds record store on the South Side, where he discovered psychedelic rock like Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators. Bryl’s interest in records was growing rapidly, and he collected many of the early punk singles. “The first single by the Averts or the Sex Pistols or The Clash—there might have been twenty copies floating around Chicago,” he says.
In the late 1970s, he also started going to La Mere Vipere, the Lincoln Park gay bar widely considered the first punk rock club in Chicago. “My friend who grew up in my neighborhood worked the door at La Mere, so I was a regular customer, listening to music I didn’t know much about,” like reggae dub and New York No Wave, Bryl says. The club, which mysteriously burned down in 1978, is discussed in the Chicago punk documentary “You Weren’t There.” “But we were all there,” Bryl says. “It was a very small community.”
A few years later, he stumbled into his first DJ gig at Club 950, after a friend asked him to take over his spot. “No one knew or cared what records you played. No one cared if you had a pause between your records.” The gig allowed him time to hone his DJ skills alongside other jocks like Ministry’s Al Jourgensen and Frankie Nardiello, founder of My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, who also worked at Wax Trax! Records, where Bryl shopped. “It was at a time before those people became stars in their own right,” Bryl says.
The format at Club 950 allowed Bryl to play whatever he liked, he says, adding that he devoted special nights to the music of Frank Sinatra to the music of Throbbing Gristle. Through it all, he says, he maintained a job at a metal-fabricating factory on the South Side called Ready Metal, eventually earning a job as floor manager. “I would work there and then DJ on a Tuesday and come home at three in the morning and get up at seven and go to my factory job.”
In the mid-1980s, Bryl teamed up with Green Mill owner Dave Jemilo and Marguerite Horberg to found the HotHouse, although both Jemilo and Bryl bowed out of the venture after about a year’s work a few months prior to the club’s opening in 1987 in Wicker Park (It later relocated to the South Loop and has since closed). Bryl says he and Jemilo had “philosophical differences” with Horberg.
Bryl went on to hold down DJ gigs at spots like the Lizard Lounge and Club Lower Links. Then, in 1990, he met Donnie Madia while Bryl was DJing soul-jazz records in the VIP room at the China Club. The two decided to team up, throwing nights at Oo-La-La in 1993, then at Vinyl in 1994 (all of these clubs have since closed).
“I have always been a big fan of Joe Bryl and his musical brilliance,” Madia says. “He doesn’t spin mediocre music, [he] always goes outside instead of being part of the trend.”
Sometime around 1997, Bryl accepted a gig at Funky Buddha Lounge, where he worked for several years, at the height of the acid-jazz scene. Near the end of his tenure there, Bryl and Madia started kicking around ideas about a new club of their own. They brought Alexander into the fold and secured property that was formerly Casey’s Liquors, at 1444 West Chicago Avenue.
“[The location] was off the beaten path,” Bryl says. “It wasn’t happening but it could be happening.”
With a cutting-edge look created by Suhail Design Studio, which had done a couple of restaurants previously for Alexander, Sonotheque opened in 2002 and quickly established itself for its quality design and programming, earning accolades in Travel + Leisure and Wallpaper.
Five years into the venture, Bryl sees no reason to change—that is, he will continue to change the focus of Sonotheque however he sees fit. The club recently screened the 1930s silent Brazilian film “Limite” with an original score by Frank Orrall of Poi Dog Pondering. An event on January 29 called City Symphonies: Modernity in the Metropolis will see Sonotheque collaborating with the Chicago Cinema Forum, with screenings of early- to mid-twentieth-century films accompanied by new music, such as Josh Eustis of Telefon Tel Aviv, who will score the 1927 film “Berlin: Symphony of a Great City.”
“Part of Sonotheque is always creating the link between the past and the present,” Bryl says, sitting at his computer in his basement office at the club, which is crammed with hundreds of records and DVDs.
Bryl says he is committed to running the day-to-day operations at Sonotheque for at least the next five years. He says the club will continue to be an “organic” entity, with a “local-global connection.” For instance, when he first started playing African music at the club, “I was playing to a bunch of white folks.” However, during the Afrodisiac party on a recent Saturday, “I was playing to ninety percent expatriates,” he says, adding that situation is the same for parties catering to the reggae and bhangra crowds.
“It helps us to have these vibrant communities supporting the night,” Bryl says. “The reward for doing this has not been astronomical…But you wake up in the morning and have a sense that you are happy with the moment.”