Written by Calla Camero
Photos by Martin Bustamante and Tiffany Sainz
For anyone who has had the pleasure of meeting San Francisco-based music producer Chet Brogan Bentley, you know he’s a person you won’t soon forget- with his six foot stature, angular silhouette, oversized tees drowning his slender figure, and hair sometimes up into two tightly braided pigtails or rigid cornrows. If you’re lucky enough you can find him on the 28 bus line with his single gold tooth gleaming through his smile, or walking through the Tenderloin with a spliff in hand and fanny pack swung over his right shoulder. But more than height or his distinctive hairdos, Chet’s loving spirit and unwavering ability to befriend virtually anyone he meets is what really remains with you, long after you’ve left San Francisco. That, and the experimental electronic music he creates, which at its core is a haunting collection of ambient dance tracks. His melodies are enigmatic; smokey and chilling, dark and beautiful, like the gloomy fog dancing over Golden Gate Park at midnight.
Chet (who goes by the artist name Brogan Bentley) moved to San Francisco in 2007 to study Media, with a Minor in Film and Music at the University of San Francisco. But I first met Chet through a mutual friend in 2013, when I was living in the Bay Area. Back then, he was in the midst of producing his first studio LP The Snake, under Los Angeles-based label Leaving Records, an album that really catapulted the vision of Brogan’s artistry into physical existence. With its 12-track journey of sensuous sound effects and echoes of whispered vocals, The Snake documents a point of transformation for Brogan, a living in and shedding of a new skin.
“My skin is so thin that it’s receptive to these external, almost spiritual elements that drive me to make music,” Chet says as he explains his musical process. “It’s like the golden hour, but it’s the witching hour too. These weird energetic combinations happening at once, and somehow music comes from that.”
Chet produces music in his dual home and studio apartment, located in the Sunset District. His studio space is facing the ocean, and has a window that overlooks Ocean Beach. So Chet creates his sounds while watching the waves move and crash into the sand, with colorful victorian homes fixed into place, and condensed in the foreground.
“Sometimes I have to get out of the house and like, go just catch some external stimuli,” he confesses. “I get really motivated when I’m walking around the city and just observing people. Melodies come to mind when I’m like walking through San Francisco. That’s when I’m most charged. And then the idea is that you can take that inspiration, bring it back to the studio, and just let it rip.”
During the period that Chet was producing tracks for The Snake, in between his off time at night, he was running around DJ’ing at different venues spread out around the city. To date, some of my favorite nights out in San Francisco would be watching Chet spin at spots like Beauty Bar in the Mission District, or Edinburgh Castle in the Tenderloin. He brought a familiar, vibrant energy and rhythm with him wherever he’d play, so it felt less like being at a bar with strangers and more like a frequent Bay Area house party.
But Chet’s DJ career, spinning at late night bars and parties throughout the Bay Area, is not what it used to be. Because even though for him, it was fun while it lasted, the music he’s creating and the person he is now, insisted on a serious life adjustment.
“Well the DJ lifestyle demands a lot of you, physically. It keeps you out late. You’re in these environments where there’s a lot of discordant energy around, and it’s not conducive to spiritually enlightened work. Which I hold my music to as a standard. I want my stuff to reflect a positive place and bars are not always positive places,” Chet tells me. “So I enacted these changes in myself. I just had to change. And I am on another page then when I was let’s say even a year ago.”
Now instead of spinning at Mission bars or Oakland parties, you can find Chet teaching audio production software at San Francisco State University and Fort Mason, teaching gardening at public elementary schools through a nonprofit organization, and studying at Mills College in Oakland, where he’s getting his masters degree in Electronic Music and Recording Media. Chet tells me that he made the conscious decision to go back to school when he realized that he didn’t want to depend on night life for income.
“I had been out of school for five years, and I had accomplished everything that I felt I was capable of accomplishing with the things I had at hand, you know?” he explains. “I am not an academic person, and I am not a great student. But I am committed to my craft.”
This new and introspective chapter in Chet’s life- both professionally and creatively- comes after a period of feeling fractured and depressed, where self-doubt caused him to take a step back from making music.
“I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t happy with the way my music was sounding, and I didn’t want to capture that energy and put it out,” Chet admits. “I had to heal. I had to really get real about what was preventing me from being productive and healthy. It wasn’t just like, ‘oh I don’t feel like making music,’ it was symptomatic of something that was bigger. As things usually are. If something’s off, it’s probably because there’s something underlying. And I’ve been working on that underlying stuff for a little while now, and soon enough I’ll have an album to show for it.”
After three years of revisiting, refining, and relinquishing material, Chet will be completing his second studio album in the ensuing months. A body of work that he says, encapsulates all of the understanding, growth, and experience he’s went through since releasing The Snake. For him, it’s music that is far more self-assured.
“I think The Snake had a lot of feelings of loathing, and a kind of brooding energy. And this strange uncertainty but nevertheless an undying faith in things underneath all that uncertainty,” he points out. “Where I was in 2015 I’ve only progressed exponentially from there, so when the next release happens I anticipate this whole new wave that I’ve been fostering, this energy and like nurturing this music for so long, that I know it’s going to be successful in the world. It’s like raising a kid that you have confidence in. You can send them out into the world knowing they’re going to be alright.”
Chet’s mental, spiritual, and musical breakthroughs are all a part of one common personal transformation within. With this new album, he’s shedding yet another skin. And after all these years, to be able to still associate Chet’s smiling face, and familiar music to San Francisco, is a comforting oasis with all of the changes we’re seeing our beloved city go through. But even though people are being pushed out because of rising rent prices, or it feels like a new place that doesn’t support musicians and creative pursuits, Chet’s perseverance to stay rooted to the place he knows and loves, is a hopeful cushion to any of us who understand the city and what it represents.
“I’m not wishy washy, I don’t go back and forth in my opinion. For someone like me who’s stuck with (San Francisco) this entire time, there’s rewards to that,” he tells me. “In a time where everything is shifting and everything’s changing, to be something that’s steadfast, it really resonates with people. Because you’re this beacon of grounding. And lead by example. If you’re confident in doing what you love doing, then people are going to see that and want that for themselves.”
There’s a refreshing consistency to Chet and the way he lives, that validates his artistry, and his commitment to music and to his community. But consistency does not discount one’s ability to evolve as an individual. Just as the city goes through its ebb and flow of changes, Chet Brogan Bentley too, is ever growing. And I can’t wait to hear the music that comes of it.
“I just turned 29, so I feel like I’m over the hump of that uncertainty in your 20's,” Chet resolves with a firm certainty in his voice. “But I’ve had older people that I really look up to tell me that it gets easier and that the middle is the hard part. And I’ve found that to be true because the past couple years have been really fucking triumph. I’m just getting real with myself about where I’m lacking, and doing the work that really needs doing. I speak for myself, but people spend a lifetime pushing that work away. And I realize now that I was using things to distract myself from the most important work of all which is on myself. But it feels good to finally honor the pain that I’ve experienced instead of running from it, and now that I’m in the last year of my 20’s, I just feel ready to own up to the things that I may have been hiding from beforehand.”