This is the second part of an interview with The Silver Room owner Eric Williams, just in time for the 9th Annual Sound System Block Party. Did you catch part one? If not, check out ‘The Silver Room That’s Gold: An Interview with Eric Williams, Pt. 1’.
Tempestt Hazel: What I think is so great about The Silver Room is that it allows for such diverse programming to happen in it. Having readings, exhibitions, music, clothing, etc. around those themes seems natural.
Eric Williams: It is. And it’s not all me. A lot of times it comes from other people who understand that the space is available for a different kind of voice to be spoken. If they get what the space is they approach me [with an idea] and I say, “Yea, let’s do it.” That way, I’m not always depending on myself to come up with what’s next.
TH: Roughly how many shows have you had here?
EW: Maybe 20? Hebru Brantley, Krista Franklin and Tyrue ‘Slang’ Jones [have each] had a show here. Ray Noland has done a mural for us. Also, Theaster Gates, who I knew of more from a music standpoint when I had Square One. There are videos of him doing pottery and singing. And he used to open up some of my shows at the Hot House. He’s playing at the Block Party, as a matter of fact. Some people don’t know that he performs.
TH: Well, I guess it depends on what point people enter into his career or become aware of his work.
EW: Yes. For me, Chicago is such a big city. There are so many people who are talented but never get the chance to have a voice. To have a place where all of these people who are talented can have a voice, I get the most satisfaction out of that. The [Sound System Block Party] culminates into that–all these people that do such great things are all doing it at the same time. It’s dope. It’s intense in some ways–not in a bad way. I say that because there’s a lot of good stuff going on. I only have ten hours! And all these people want to perform. You have some of the best DJs playing at the same time that Hebru will be painting the mural. Then Krista Franklin might be outside doing something. Then, someone could be inside teaching a steppers class. It’s all at the same time.
Congo Square Theater is going to do a performance on the main stage. I want people to see theater. That’s something that we miss out on in our culture. And, again, I’ve got a space–why not use it [for theater]? These people aren’t going to go to Steppenwolf, or Goodman, or Congo, or ETA. But they might come to the Silver Room if it’s affordable, promoted well and it’s a good play. I think it could work–live theater in the back of The Silver Room. We’ll see what happens.
TH: Going back to the Block Party–it’s been nine years. How has it evolved from the first one?
EW: I can tell you exactly how it started. I was at the Taste of Lincoln Park. I used to get booths at other festivals to promote the store. It wasn’t fun. There was nothing that spoke to me. I could take $500 or $600, do a party myself and do my own thing. So, the first year I literally did that. It was in the alley down the street. My friend Ron and I dragged a sound system out, we didn’t have a real stage–we had some bricks with plywood. Eric Roberson was in town and performed. I think Slang painted the mural–it was just fun. People said I should do it every week! [laughs] But it’s a lot of work. Then I had to do it every year, and every year it’s gotten bigger. I started off thinking it was going to be small. We only advertised a little bit for it and then people just started coming and coming!
This year, I wasn’t even going to do it this year. It was way too much money to spend for a free party. I don’t make much money off of it–except the store is a bit busier that day. But that doesn’t justify all the money it costs for flights, fees, permits, the stage, the sound, fliers, a little something [for performers] even though most offer to do it for free. It starts adding up. So, I wasn’t going to do it this year–but everyone said, “You’ve GOT to do it!” So [to ease the costs of the party], this year I’m making it known that we are taking $5 donations. It’s still going to be free, but…
TH: Well, people are getting so much, it’s definitely worth donating something to it.
EW: People need to start spending a little money to keep things going. I’m not going to become Bill Gates from doing the Block Party, but I’d at least like to get the money to pay for it.
TH: It would be nice as a token of people’s appreciation, and saying, “You know what? You put all this effort into this, it’s a really amazing experience–it’s at least worth $5.
EW: Right. People don’t see the late nights that go into it. But, the 100 Canvases thing came from me thinking of ways to raise money that would involve artists. I know a lot of visual artists, so I wanted to see if they would donate a 12in. by 12in. painting. I didn’t know if they were going to do it or not. We sent it out, and people did it. Then, the next part was to get people to commit to $50 [for a piece]. You get a piece of local art that you can have for the rest of your life. Hopefully people will get it. I hope we sell all the work–that would help out a lot.
The event could be much bigger, but I’ve confined to how much money I have to spend on it. I think the event looks much bigger than what we actually spend on it only because my friends do it for free, Blick gave us the paint for the murals, etc. I think all the love that people show is what makes the actual event look even better.
TH: It’s the way that people make it hard for you to not do it.
EW: Yea. No one is getting rich off of it–it’s just a time for people to come together and have fun. It’s the reason why the visuals this year, the theme this year is A Better World. It came from my daughter. Everything to her is new. And for her, having fun is just playing with a ball or the simplest thing. I think as we get older, things get so complicated. You’re not necessarily having more fun now than when you were ten. You probably had more fun then than you are now–without Twitter and Facebook, and 75 inch TVs! So, just because things evolve with technology and etc., etc., that doesn’t mean it’s a better world. Sometimes it’s about the simpler things. That why the flier–a girl shot it last year–is a kid having so much fun on a fire hydrant. We take the simplest things for granted while this dude is having a ball! [laughs] To me, that’s the idea of a better world–just keeping things simple. We don’t need all this stuff. You can keep it simple and have a good time. That was my vision of what it means, but everyone else interprets it in different ways.
For 100 Canvases, each artist had to submit a statement of why they did what they the work that they did. I’m creating a book with each statement along with the piece so [people] can read why each artist made their piece. You’ll also get a copy to take home if you purchase a piece. Hopefully, the artist will connect with the person that bought it.
TH: Do you think the Block Party is filling a void in Chicago?
EW: Without a doubt–that’s what everybody tells me.
TH: With the countless street events, art festivals, art fairs, art walks–what makes this Block Party different?
EW: I think it’s a lot of things. One, it being in Wicker Park, it’s the nostalgia of this diverse, unique and creative neighborhood that’s lost. Then you see the Block Party, I heard somebody say, “This is like old Wicker Park.” I hear that all the time. “This is how Wicker Park used to be!” Two, I think the diversity of the event is unique. And not just color.
TH: Right. Being in this location combined with the roster of performers and artists–that makes sense.
EW: It’s purposely made to be diverse. I have a Filipino Hip-Hop group performing–the Lab Dance Studio. We’ve got all kinds of stuff. It’s a matter of people being open minded. For instance, if there’s a rock band performing people in the audience may have never otherwise known who they are, but they end up thinking they’re dope. [Some of these people] never would have gone to the Abbey Pub or even the Double Door to see them. Then there are some who come and hear House music and think that it’s cool too. One year we recreated a traditional Indian wedding–the only thing we didn’t have was an elephant. So, that’s the idea behind it–bringing people together. Everybody can enjoy each other’s culture. And age. To me a big part of diversity is age. It’s rare that you see ages from babies to sixty-something. For me that is, in some ways, more important than racial diversity. You can bring your kids. You can bring your grandma. My grandma comes every year–she’s 97! For real. [laughs]
The other thing I think people like about it is that they feel very comfortable. They know they can be themselves. They don’t have to fit into certain categories. Here no one is going to judge you. There’s just a lot of love. It sounds kind of corny but everybody’s happy!
TH: That’s what block parties are. At least, that’s my memory of block parties.
EW: Exactly. And that’s why I call it a block party. The term ‘block party’ does not connotate a big affair. I call it sound system like a sound system in Jamaica and when they would bring them out in the parks. It’s all about the music. It’s about the sound. It’s about kids running around. Turning some hamburgers over on a grill. It’s that feeling of youthfulness. That’s where the name comes from, and every year it’s a different theme.
TH: If you were speaking with someone who has never been to the Block Party and could boil it down to three words, what would they be?
EW: Fun. Openminded. And laughter. When I think back [about past Block Parties] everyone is laughing, having fun. It’s as simple as that.
Saturday, July 16th from 12pm – 10pm, check out the 9th Annual Block Party: A Better World at The Silver Room in Wicker Park. The 100 Canvases For A Better World Exhibition will be on display and pieces will be available for purchase through August 4, 2011.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.