Seattle Center’s International Fountain, a much-loved remnant of the 1962 World’s Fair, isn’t some glorified fire hydrant. Linger long enough and you’ll hear bhangra music pumping nearby, seemingly synced with the jets of water. And starting August 3, short films will be projected onto the spray as part of the Fountain of Light series.
Not enough people know that the fountain has its own DJ: Capitol Hill native James Whetzel, who’s been designing soundtracks for the Center’s water shows for over a decade. A former UW musicology student who minored in Congolese pop, Whetzel has created eclectic playlists that skip gamely from hip hop to Jamaican dub pioneer King Tubby to Frenchman Yann Tiersen as children cool off in the jets. (Check out Whetzel’s latest playlist.)
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we chatted with Whetzel, the ever-affable maestro behind (and occasionally inside) the International Fountain, about his love of African beats and the illusion of synchronized music.
What did you grow up listening to?
Mostly rock and hip hop and some Western classical music and jazz. When I started playing electric guitar I listened to a lot more blues and jazz…. It was through looking to learn more ideas about guitar that I discovered North African Shaabi and Rai music and South Asian classical folk and pop sounds. I found all this new music to be undeniably badass and exciting.
I heard a lot of cool African music via KCMU (now KEXP) and KBCS radio...in the ’90s. It was through KCMU that I heard West African Juju, Highlife, Afro-Beat and Fuji music and also Congolese Rumba and Soukous. At the end of the ’90s I started studying tabla with an American musician who introduced me to some touring Indian musicians, Urmila and Vishal Nagar. I began to perform with them occasionally in a band called Awaz and it was while playing with them in that I started to play sarod. They brought me my first sarod from India.
Are you bringing anything new to the fountain this summer?
I have a special mix coming up, an all-local playlist. I named it “Bertha Landes.” She was the first female mayor of Seattle and the first female mayor of a major American city. There is actually a room in City Hall named after her. So I thought, Let me give this a significant local name.
Another special thing is that this new playlist has some of my own stuff on it. After 10-plus years, it's probably fair. People within and outside of Seattle Center have been encouraging me for a while. I didn’t want to put my stuff on a playlist so people wouldn’t be like “Oh, James only plays his own stuff all the time.” Conflict of interest, you know? If the track gets 79 likes on my Facebook page, it is worth putting on the fountain.
Break it down for us—how do you even begin to design a water show?
There are two types of shows running—“the Big Show,” which I have actually not done since 2006. [But] the “Fleur de Lis” pattern is mine. Half to 75 percent of the music is mine.
Here’s the secret: If I'm doing my job well, it does look like it's playing to the water. It's only actually programmed to the water during the Big Show. The rest of the time, I am choosing music that is kind of going to the rhythm to the water. There are just some things that don’t work. A singer-songwriter kind of track just isn’t going to work. That’s why I pick a lot of instrumental music. It helps with the illusion.
Do you keep a specific audience in mind when making playlists for the Fleur de Lis shows?
No, I don’t. It's more like I have several audiences I have to keep in mind. There are always kids that want to play around in the fountain, so they are always an audience. I don’t want just slamming beats or for it to get too repetitive. If somebody is just chilling, I want them to chill. Still, I want to keep it diverse. I want to create a vibe, but I will break it up a bit with high energy and reggae and some Yann Tiersen and ska and back to down-tempo. I like to have new stuff, but I want people to hear things they haven’t heard in awhile and not beat them over the head with anything. I aim to be never boring.