Over the last couple decades, Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood has gone from hipster capital to backyard for the affluent, where luxury high-rises have all but eroded its once-thriving DIY music scene. So you can forgive the Brooklyn-born DJ duo Chances With Wolves for being a little skeptical when the area’s bourgie Wythe Hotel reached out to them about a partnership.
“As someone who grew up here, I’m overly-sensitive to people who come into Brooklyn and open up their businesses,” says Chances With Wolves’ Kenan Juska, whose online radio show of the same name with Justin Cox (which started out as a staple of East Village Radio) has served as a bastion of genre-hopping vinyl obscurities since 2008. “But I always had a good feeling about the Wythe; I felt there was a genuine affection and respect for the neighborhood. There’s a bunch of new hotels in Williamsburg, and if some of them had asked — although first of all, I don’t think they would have — I don’t think we would’ve said yes.”
It helped that the hotel’s director of programming, Rachael Petach, was a friend (they played her wedding afterparty at a nearby dive bar). But it was also Wythe Hotel owner and general manager Peter Lawrence’s attitude toward expanding the hotel’s music scene bona fides that appealed to them — take things slow to get it right.
“I’m a firm believer that the only way to really build a place is word of mouth,” Lawrence says. “Decide what you’re doing, stick to it and do the best job you can at it. Thoughtful and accomplished people will notice, and they’ll tell their friends — and that takes a little time.”
“A lot of places are looking for instant results, and Peter told us he wanted it to be a long-term thing,” Juska says, explaining how their outlooks dovetail. “Quality stuff takes time to put together.”
The Wythe’s gentle steps into the music community were preceded by film and art events, which they’ve been putting on for years, in part because Lawrence admits he wasn’t entirely confident the Wythe was ready to enter that realm when they opened. “At the beginning we felt like there were so many people in the neighborhood who owned that lane. Brooklyn Bowl is across the street and there were so many live venues… If we weren’t going to do an amazing job, I’d rather send somebody to a different place than do a half-ass job.”
But since 2008 – the year the property was purchased – the neighborhood underwent enormous changes. The handful of robust DIY venues scattered across Williamsburg were either pushed out or permanently closed, and a number of proper venues shuttered as well. Suddenly, there just weren’t that many places to send hotel guests to for a casual live show.
So with the addition of Jon Neidich, chief executive of Golden Age Hospitality, to the Wythe as a food and beverage partner, the hotel has started edging into the performance realm – be it a summertime series of shows curated by IAMSOUND or Chances With Wolves’ long-term partnership with the hotel, which sees them bringing eclectic, tropical vibes to the hotel’s Lemon’s rooftop bar/restaurant.
But given Chances’ attention to detail (the driving rule of their radio show is that no recording can be repeated, ever – and they have spreadsheets to track it) and affinity for odd flourishes, the partnership was never going to be as simple as a mere DJ residency.
To that end, the duo is curating the soundtrack for the hotel’s elevators, switching it up based on seasonal changes, and is even choosing the hold music for the Wythe’s landlines. “It’s little things, but an opportunity to add character to the experience,” Juska says.
There are also in-room sound libraries, including a project called Last Sounds — the idea being that it’s the last sound you hear before falling asleep at the hotel. And that could be a lullaby crafted by a neighborhood musician, a Chances With Wolves playlist or even a writer reading a piece from The Paris Review.
If all of that sounds a shade experimental for a hotel, well, that’s the intention. “I want this to feel like a place where people can come to test things out,” Lawrence insists. “It feels like there’s less and less of those opportunities… I want this to be a place where people can fall flat on their face — and that’s okay. There’s still a friendly audience.”
Rock singer-songwriter TOMI, who performed an incendiary mid-August set as part of the IAMSOUND-curated series, is an example of that – not the falling flat on your face part, mind you, but the idea that a show at the hotel isn’t a formal concert, but more of a casual show that you might catch at a neighborhood joint. “Halfway through her set she said, ‘I’m just making this shit up,'” Lawrence recalls. “That’s my underlying goal… and hopefully, people fall in love with building and the bar and then we have more friends.”
Money, of course, is a factor – it’s a business after all. “It’s a big small business, and I don’t have an unlimited budget,” Lawrence says. “We’re navigating doing stuff that’s high quality without getting crushed.”
The Chances With Wolves partnership, for one, is proving lucrative for the hotel’s food and beverage. “When Chances played Lemon’s on a Sunday, the hotel doubled income compared to the previous Sunday,” he says. And while Chances declined to provide the specifics of compensation, Juska notes that there’s a long-term deal in place.
“We’re careful about the things we say yes to,” Juska says. “We’ve been doing this for 10 years, and if we’d made weird partnerships along the way, I don’t think we’d be here still. I always liked their vibe – Wythe is an independent hotel, not a chain, and I love the idea that we have a little bit of a home there.
“Music is an afterthought in most places,” he says. “You don’t hear people say they want music to be a strong part of their program often — and it’s even more rare when they say it and mean it.”