Ben Runnels, 32, was many things.
He was Ben Benjamin, half of the “croonwave” synth band Introflirt. He was the musician who used to go by the stage name Charlie Prowler. He was a radio DJ and vintage crooner and a caring friend and lover of coffee. He was a student of music and of human emotion.
“Ben didn’t have the capacity to not care. He was intrinsically a compassionate, loving soul,” writes friend, Dawn Marie, in a remembrance of Runnels, who died in the Oakland warehouse fire. When she had to be treated for cancer, she says, Runnels jumped in to help manage her streaming radio station. He offered to do anything he could – even though the two had never met in person; at that point, they had only exchanged long and winding emails about the oddities of life.
Runnels, who moved to Oakland in 2011, had been a popular DJ at the alternative station WEQX in Vermont, where he hosted the show Jam n’ Toast. He was originally from Mariaville, New York, near Albany, but was drawn west by the music scene in the Bay Area. Both his parents and his sister flew out to Oakland after hearing news of the fire.
Two years ago, Runnels teamed up with Nicole Siegrist, who went by Denalda Nicole Renae, to form the synth pop band, Introflirt. Their tag line: “the soundtrack for the socially awkward.” Renae was also a victim of the Ghost Ship fire.
The two put out their first album, titled Introflirt, last year, and released their second album, Temporary Heaven, more recently. They performed their most recent show in October and were preparing for upcoming appearances. They had sealed a deal to open for the synthpop and electronic band Book of Love at San Francisco’s DNA Lounge in February 2017, says their band manager and sound engineer, Brendan Dreaper. “We were really looking forward to that,” Dreaper says.
Dreaper remembers the first time he met Runnels and Renae after the Eastlake Music Festival in Oakland. They were struggling to set up for a show. Another friend, Donna Kellogg, who also died in the fire, was assisting them as they tried to stop a sound feedback issue.
“It just looked like a disaster waiting to happen,” Dreaper says. A budding sound engineer, Dreaper walked over to help and ended up making new friends – friends who would become among the closest members of his circle. “As soon as they started playing, I was just like, ‘Oh my god, this music is amazing.’”
Ultimately, Dreaper helped the band get repped by Mixtape Management. Introflirt gained a following for its memorable sound, which blends old-school crooning a la Frank Sinatra with electronic synth.
Runnels was a fan of Sinatra and hosted a weekly show on Bombshell Radio (a streaming site focusing on the screen siren and big band music of the mid-20th century) called The Croon Wave. He also practiced his singing at a jazz piano bar three nights a week, so that he could use his voice to express the full range of emotions. “He was not afraid of the rawness of it, of the tenderness,” Dreaper says.
“If you listen to Ben’s lyrics, there’s a lot of deep meaning in it,” says Michelle Campbell, who founded Mixtape Management and was a friend of Runnels’s.
Friends and family are planning a listening session to honor the Introflit duo.
“The two of them were meant to meet in this life and do this music,” Campbell says. “They shared their love for the same things,” and also, she laughs, “their love for donuts.”
To hear Runnels singing jazz standards, see his Soundcloud page.
For music from Introflirt, see the duo's Soundcloud page.
To watch an interview with Runnels about playing house shows, see here.
For more of our tributes to the victims of the Oakland warehouse fire, please visit our remembrances page here.
For a printable poster of the illustration above, see here.
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED