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Something in the Water: Seattle Music Scene (2011)

Q&A with Director, Ward Serrill

October 5, 2011

Complete Transcript

What are you trying to convey in “Something in the Water”? How did you get involved with the project?

Ward Serill: Yah, It’s called “Something in the Water” and Stephen Hegg here at KCTS got in touch with me and PBS needed a short program to follow the "Pearl Jam Twenty" documentary by Cameron Crowe, so my idea was, well, he’s probably going to do really well on the past and what would it be like to do a little featurette on the Seattle music scene today.

You open and close the documentary with Pat Wright of the Total Experience Gospel Choir. Who's Pat Wright?

Pat Wright with the "Total Experience Gospel Choir" was the first person I thought of because the piece is called "Something in the Water" and I thought of this old spiritual called Wade in the Water and at the same time ah would Pat be willing to do that and to me Pat is the history of Seattle music not only going back to Quincy Jones and the Jazz era and Jackson street and Ray Charles and all that, but she’s played with "Soundgarden" and today continues to make amazing music.

There's a huge emphasis on KEXP in the film. Talk about KEXP. What makes them unique?

When I thought about the program, the first thing that came to my mind was KEXP and because it’s such a special independent radio station and there’s not many of them in the country. KEXP is probably the reason, one of the main reasons why Seattle’s music scene keeps being so potent and so ongoing. So what would it be like to make film that goes inside a radio station, maybe one of the top radio stations in the country and see how it ticks and who are some of the people there and how they get local music out day after day.

How do you think the internet has helped them [KEXP]?

One of the things that has made KEXP such a potent force in independent music is their internet broadcast. I think they are among the top terrestrial based radio stations around the world in terms of listenership - meaning that there’s people all over the world over the internet hearing their shows and they do these podcasts of their in-studio performances. One of the reasons I really was excited about KEXP was not just cause they’re a radio station but that they bring in all these bands, singers, musicians from Seattle to perform live in the studio, so I said wow here’s a way to not only get into the radio station but actually hear and meet some of the musicians in Seattle.

Tell me your personal impressions of KEXP.

My main impression of being at KEXP was how passionate people are there about music and local music and people have fun there. I didn’t meet anyone there that just didn’t absolutely love their job. and you can tell in that small beehive area there was so much going on and there was an energy of joy around music and getting that out into the world.

Speaking of "Nirvana" and the Seattle grunge scene, where were you during the Seattle grunge scene?

Where was I during the Seattle grunge scene... Before the Seattle Grunge scene I was an accountant wearing a three-piece suit riding up and down the boxes of downtown Seattle as strange as that might seem. And actually during grunge itself I was up in southeast Alaska because I ended up going up to work in a Native Indian village up there, so I was actually in Alaska during the Grunge Scene, so I’d come back and hear what was going on at the clubs and all, but I was out in the wilderness.

You visited Sub Pop Records in downtown Seattle - what were your impressions of them?

Sup Pop as people say in the show may be the most important independent record label in the country and is so synonymous with Seattle music and grunge music they were the first label to launch "Nirvana and to this day they are the label handling most of the big acts out of Seattle - whether that’s "Fleet Foxes," "The Head and the Heart," or "Band of Horses." Sup Pop was not only relevant back in the grunge era, because they were the first to release Green River" and "Nirvana," and "Mudhoney," so they’re still happening in Seattle and maybe relevant now more than ever.

You interview "Head and the Heart" in this piece, where did you shoot their interview?

"The Head and the Heart" interview was actually in the loft studio up on Capitol Hill because they were about the perform at the Capitol Hill Block Party.It was a second story loft in there. We couldn’t believe the light and background... that was the most ideal interview place and they were a kick to work with.

Let’s talk about local hip hop. What did you think of Shabazz Palaces and Macklemore?

So we've talked about the pop music scene in Seattle, but forget that the hip hop scene here is really vibrant - with "Sir-Mix-Alot," The Blue Scholars... Shabazz Palaces is doing stuff from outer space, I mean it’s just amazing, but the biggest revelation for me in this film was Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. I was really tired that day... it was like another 14-hour shoot day and it was the end of the day and Macklemore was in the studio and all of sudden I heard this sound come out and my whole body just sat up and pretty soon I was feeling energized and wonderful. There’s so much joy coming out of him and his group. I really didn’t know Mackelmore before this piece, and now I’m a fan.

Were there other artists who stood out to you while shooting this documentary?

The groups in this piece involved Pat Wright in the "Total Experience Gospel Choir," on top of Gas Works Park is "Tripwires" - an amazing group that had a lot of history in early Seattle rock-n-roll, and "Pickwick," "Shabazz Palaces," "The Head and the Heart," "Macklemore and Ryan Lewis."

The band that I was trying to into this were the "Fleet Foxes," but they were on tour at the time. I also wanted to get "Mudhoney" and they were on tour at the same time, and "Death Cab for Cutie" and they were also on tour 'cause it’s the summertime, so it was tough... we actually had to film in one day in KEXP so it was hard to coordinate all the schedule.

If this film could be longer than 13 minutes, how would you have done it?

This piece could’ve easily been a much longer, deeper richer documentary -- in fact our first cut was 30 minutes longer and I was like oh my gosh we have to get this down to 12 minutes and 45 seconds, so we trimmed and trimmed and trimmed. Look, the Seattle music scene is so rich you can go off with Pat Wright and the Gospel scene, the whole jazz scene in Seattle would be an amazing exploration. There’s hip hop, there’s what’s the next upcoming band and then what’s going on over there with KEXP on an ongoing basis. and the club scene and the independent record stores, there’s a lot happening.

"Something in the Water" is airing nationwide after the PBS premiere of "Pearl Jam Twenty" - What do you know about Cameron Crowe's "Pearl Jam Twenty"?

My research for this began with getting a hold of the Pearl Jam folks and saying can I see this documentary, can I see "Pearl Jam Twenty"? Because I’m going to be making a piece following it, so I went out to their place and they graciously let me see a rough cut and I was stunned. I think it’s one of the best top 10 music films I’ve ever seen. It was incredible. It also showed me what follows it had to really kinda come in strong, because the Pearl Jam piece is really dense and kind of explosive and... I wanted to make something people wouldn’t want to tune out afterwards.

So what’s next for you?

I’m working on two documentaries right now. One is called "Tree Story" which is about the connection people have to a particular tree in their life -- looking at a tree from every conceivable angle. And then the second one is called "The Boy Who Sang to the World" which is a feature on a scientist and sound healer from Orcas Island called Tom Kenyon, so that’s what’s happening.