The Seattle Center's International Fountain: It's an all-but-forgotten relic reserved for families, tourists, and shameless hippies who do yoga or martial arts in the grassy patch in front of the Fisher Pavilion. Right? (I will never understand why anyone would ever want to do yoga in a public place.) The fountain has been there since the 1962 World's Fair, but it has never been a landmark in its own right—it's something you pass on the way to the Pacific Science Center, the Fun Forest (RIP), EMP, KeyArena, or the Rep. If you have kids, maybe you stop and let them run around and get all wet.
Only after I moved to Lower Queen Anne and started cutting through the Seattle Center on the way home did I realize how fucking awesome the International Fountain really is.
It is captivating to watch, especially at night with white lights shining up through the water. It holds 9,000 gallons of water; it has four "Super Shooters" that each spray 66 gallons of water over 120 feet into the air. There are also 137 mist nozzles, 77 fleurs-de-lis, and 56 microshooters. On hot summer days, when children flock to the fountain like it's the sprinkler of their dreams—which it totally is—at least one unsuspecting little kid gets hosed in the face after trying to conquer the water's unpredictable patterns.
The more time I spent there, the more I noticed the music—and how surprisingly good it is. It became obvious that the fountain's song list was being put together by someone who knows their shit. That person is a 31-year-old Seattle native named James Whetzel.
Whetzel has been curating the International Fountain's playlist for the last 10 years. He got the job as a hand-me-down from a fellow UW musicology student. He spends hours every week listening to, picking, and remixing music to accompany the season, the spray, and any special events going on around the Seattle Center. He can go on and on about DJs from Egypt, same with local Asian string quartets. He name-checks the Smiths, Hawaiian musician Iz Kamakawiwo'ole, Fila Brazillia, local electronic act Truckasauras, and Muse in the same conversation. Talking to Whetzel is like having a discussion with a human Shazam app—his brain can not only identify nearly any piece of music you throw at him, but he'll also tell you the song's history, if anyone else covered that song, and whether or not it's something that could ever work in the fountain. Trance techno with 70 bpm over 140 bpm, for example, can work surprisingly well! Industrial band Skinny Puppy does not.
"I want to create an inviting environment. I want people to feel like they can interact with the fountain, so I tend to favor more instrumental stuff," says Whetzel. "If there's a vocal, I want it to be dubbed out or sound textural—like an instrument almost. I've found over the years if you put your average singer-songwriter track in there, it just sounds wrong."
Whetzel was born and raised in Seattle, and, yes, he did play in the fountain as a kid. That's also when he started to play music. He was playing piano by the age of 6 and took up guitar when he was a teenager. Over the years, he's attempted to learn just about every instrument he could get his hands on (except for the saxophone—he draws the line at the saxophone). His current loves are the sarod, "an Indian fretless lute you play with your fingernails," and African and Middle Eastern percussion. He performs around Seattle in his "folk & machine" band—his genre—called Das Dhoom, and he occasionally DJs. He also does his own remixes in his home studio, working with everything from Fugazi to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.
Whetzel has a vast knowledge of all kinds of local music, but he also spent some time in France, so he can "make a French mix, no problem." Same goes for Arabic music. You can hear any and all of this at any given moment at the fountain. And if you stick around long enough, you'll also get to catch one of the "big shows."
"There are two different kinds of water shows at the fountain. There are the big shows, and there are what we call the fleurs-de-lis," he says.
The fleurs-de-lis are the main part of Whetzel's job—they're the shows that play throughout the day, every day, with one of Whetzel's weekly mixes playing on a loop. (He gets to go underneath the fountain every week to change the CD—he says it's wet, loud, and cramped down there.) The fleurs-de-lis shows aren't synced to the water at all, but Whetzel has been making mixes long enough that he knows which types of songs will work best with the flow of the water.
The big shows are a different kind of beast. They happen a few times an hour; there are currently seven in rotation. The big shows are when the "Super Shooters" shoot dozens of gallons of water over 100 feet into the air, and they're completely dazzling. There's one featuring all Northwest rock—Nirvana, Jimi Hendrix, Soundgarden—and one based on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. But because they're both time-consuming and expensive to produce, they don't get updated very often. You can still hear one Whetzel designed in 2006.
"I did the one to honor the series of free cultural festivals called Festál," he says. "Festál is a series of celebrations for different ethnic communities—Chinese, Japanese, Jewish, Irish, Italian, Vietnamese, Hmong... a Hmong festival, I mean, who has a Hmong festival? That's pretty cool! They wanted a mix that would honor that, so I made an international DJ mix. It starts out with Rachid Taha, goes into MC Salah, there's DJ Krush, Manu Chao is in there..."
Is the sequence ever meant to purposefully fool kids into thinking the fountain has turned off, only to come back on and spray them in the face?
"It is, actually!" he says with a laugh. "That [Festál] is one of the mixes that was intentionally designed to fool kids. The Tito Puente song 'Oye Como Va'—you know, the one Carlos Santana covered—he has that little breakdown where it goes quiet, and then it comes back in and shoots off the big jets. That's the moment. That was planned."