Sunday, November 20, 2011

Alaska in Winter

As I was researching this story I came upon a strange video of Brandon Bethancourt, wrapped in a blanket panhandling along Central Ave. The camera follows his wretched journey as he peers into windows and inventories the contents of a grocery cart. At one point he speaks towards the camera (the video has no audio track) and then hunkers down on the sidewalk.  One commenter remarked: "Come on man, this ain't look real"  I watched it a few times and came to the same conclusion. 

There is a precedent for tomfoolery, Brandon once conducted an entire interview speaking with a Borat accent. If the video was recorded after his recovery, then it's a sardonic, tongue in cheek jab at himself. If it's real, then it's just fucking sad that in this age of interventions, he wasn't yanked off the streets and delivered to Anna Kaseman almost immediately. All conspiracy theories aside, Brandon's chemical slide down a slippery slope was very real.  

Perhaps the plight of Brandon Bethancourt is a cautionary tale. Raised in Santa Fe, he dropped out of school in Albuquerque and headed north to Alaska. In 2004, he channeled his inner Chris McCandless (the subject of the book & movie " Into The Wild")  and spend an Alaskan winter in a cabin, composing and recording music on his laptop. Unlike the wreckless McCandless, Brandon kept a lifeline open to the outside world. 

This spared Brandon the same fate as that ill fated vagabond. McCandless was a self styled survivalist who called himself  Alexander Supertramp. Having cutting off all ties with family & friends, he set out for the Alaskan wilderness to live off the land. Pitifully unprepared, he starved to death in an abandoned bus. Bethancourt would in fact come close to meeting his end much like Chris, just not in the midst of a wilderness.

From this experience he would be born again as Alaska in Winter. Brandon armed with a hard drive loaded with the fruits of his labor, returned  to Santa Fe ready to establish himself as a musician & composer. The music recorded during this period of isolation would eventually take on the same kind mystique as Zac Condon's bedroom recordings (The Joys of Losing Weight) Known as "The Cabin Sessions" their impending release to the public has been rumored for several years.

Bethancourt's first project (pre-Alaska in Winter) was Opion Somnium,  a collective of classically trained musicians from Santa Fe & Albuquerque. Those involved would include a 17 yr. old Zach Condon on trumpet (this was around the time he was recording with Alex Gaziano)  Hilary Bethancourt-melodica (his sister, who he followed to Alaska, to my knowledge he is not directly related to Annie Bethancourt, a Portland based singer-songwriter)  Hari Zisnweski- clarinet (his co-half in the electronic pop duo known as Rap. They opened an Albuquerque show for  Beirut in 2006) Naila Dixon-vocals  Heather Trost- violin (Foma, A Hawk and a Hacksaw) Stefanie Lamm- vocals and Rosina Roibal- viola.
2002's "Ascend and Descend with Feathers in Hand", the first Opion Somnium album was self described as "a very contemplative and depressing album." The music was released on vinyl (in 7" & 12" format) as well as on compact disc. Releasing music on obscure or nearly obsolete formats, would become a trademark for Alaska in Winter (an eccentric indulgence that almost certainly hurt sales)  Opion Somnium also recorded "Operae Spererae/Opus Somniferous" in 2005, a far more appealing collection of experimental and classic music. 

Brandon Bethancourt had a case of wanderlust and like his Santa Fe homeboy, Zach Condon, he went off in search of the lost chord. I don't know if he actually traveled to Europe with Zach, but he does appear to have covered some of the same ground. Soon after,  Bethancourt started working on what would become his breakout album "Dance Party in the Balkans" released in Europe during July of 2007 and credited to Alaska in Winter. (the album was released stateside in March of 2008) The single "Red Dress" with its accompanying video is ethereal electronic pop shrouded in gothic angst, Trent Reznor lite. The similarities to Beirut are both obvious and subtle. (thanks mainly to Zach's trumpet playing) Except  Brandon used electronic dance music as a base where Zach utilized indie rock.

To record and promote his music Brandon had signed with Iain Kirckadly, owner & manager of Regular Beat Records. As Bethancourt toured in support of the album, Kirckadly was cutting his own deals and manipulating Brandon's accounts. Alaska in Winter's music started popping up on screen productions. "Red Dress" was used in an episode of Grey's Anatomy. To the casual observer it appeared that moderate fame & fortune was coming Alaska in Winter's way. That however, wasn't the case. Iain Kirckadly had negotiated a sync license with a film company that allowed him to collect all royalties. 

Brandon was now living  in Berlin, where he started working on the second Alaska in Winter album. The much awaited followup to his debut, "Holiday" was released in November of 2008, in Europe & The U.S.  The overall response by fans and music critics was lukewarm. Bethancourt returned to Santa Fe, having received a mere pittance of what he was owed by Kirckadly and Regular Beat Records. Back in New Mexico, Brandon continued his struggle to obtain compensation from Kirckadly, who simply ignored his e-mails and phone calls.   

In VH1's popular series "Behind the Music" this is the moment when the shit hits the fan. Brandon finished working on Alaska in Winter's third album, "Space Eagle (the motion picture soundtrack)" In February of 2010, it had a limited release (100 copies mastered) in cassette tape format only (it's doubtful that there was an actual movie associated with the music) It was almost the last coherent act by a man sinking into a mire of depression and substance abuse.
With no sustainable income and apparently isolated from friends and family, Brandon's life began to unravel. Unable to pay his utility bills, he soon found himself without electricity and heat. In the grip of addiction, what little money he came upon went to buy drugs. In the dead of an  Albuquerque winter, Brandon was living in near homeless conditions with no food or utilities. Starving to death in the middle of a large American city is unthinkable, Alex Supertramp would have scoffed at such a notion.  

Fans of his music and most of his acquaintances apparently had no idea he had sunk to that level. For most the first news they got of his emaciated condition was a letter posted on his MySpace Music page, outlining his plight and the fact that Iain Kirckadly & Regular Beat Records had still not paid Brandon anything, despite his desperate pleas.  Bethancourt would spend several months in an Albuquerque hospital being treated for severe depression and chemical psychosis.

Upon his release he addressed his situation in an open letter to his fans:

"This is going to be brutally honest but I just want you all to know that it's because of you that I am still here and alive right now....
As some of you know, this past year has been incredibly difficult for me. I've been pouring my blood sweat and tears into this project for the last 3 years only to come to the conclusion that I've gone nowhere with my music "career". I literally can't support myself. I never wished for millions of dollars, fancy cars, or mansions- I had simply hoped that I'd be able to make enough money from my music that I could afford to rent a studio apartment and feed myself- but even that is unrealistic at the moment.
I felt like a failure because I worked so hard for 3 years to "make it" with my music, banging my head into brick walls over and over again- even sacrificing relationships and friendships which I still regret to this day. I got to a point where I thought that I was unsuccessful because I was not making money from my music. That lead to some pretty severe depression which I tried to fix by self medicating myself. I was starving and I couldn't afford heat which lead to health problems, and all I wanted to do was give up. I went years where every single morning I would wake up and have to talk myself out of killing myself"...

He would finish his message with a sense of hope: 

"Life is not worth living unless there is beauty and love within it- and I thank you all from the bottom of my heart for opening my eyes and showing me the love and beauty which I was blind to for so long."

Brandon has since continued with his recovery and music. The progess of which he laid out in another letter posted on his My Space Music blog. Brandon Bethancourt is not the first victim of an unscrupulous record company, nor will he be the last.  Since his return to music, Brandon has announced the upcoming releases, "B-Sides & Other Missed Opportunities", "Suicide Prevention Hotline", "Memorex Floppy Disk" (a 7" floppy vinyl disc) and the often rumored "Cabin Sessions"  As he often does, Brandon has posted the cover art  before the music, which we now await.