A monthlong residency would be an impressive run for any DJ, but James Whetzel can lay claim to a gig that's lasted a whopping 26 years. Not only was the length of his tenure unique—the venue was too: Seattle Center’s International Fountain.
The fountain debuted at the 1962 World’s Fair, so for almost half of its existence, Whetzel has been making mixes to accompany the iconic, dynamic water feature. And thanks to the magic of the internet, you don’t even need to be in Lower Queen Anne to hear his work.
His fountain tunes can be found on Mixcloud for a symbiotic soundtrack to flowing water anywhere: ocean waves, a babbling brook, or the kitchen faucet while you do the dishes. Here Whetzel reveals how it all started, how it evolved, and where it might go now that he has “retired” from his long-running stint.
How did you land this gig?
Like a lot of cool jobs, I met the person who was doing it before me, a guy named Andy Frankel. I ended up working for him at an African record label. He was like me; he was an ethnomusicologist.
He was like, “Hey, I'm doing this really cool job, but I don't have time to do it. Are you interested?” I gradually started doing other jobs, but I kept always doing the fountain, and it bears mentioning that I never thought I'd be doing it this long, you know? It feels good to share new music with people and to make an inviting atmosphere. So I wanted to keep doing it as long as I could, but I always thought I'd get so busy with other things that I'd drop it one day. But I never did, until now.
As part of the creation of the mixes, what inspires you? Do you imagine people at the fountain or look at moving water?
My thinking about the fountain evolved from when I first started. I would go out and observe people and observe kids interacting. It made me come to the concept of mellower stuff January, February, and March, and then gradually building an energy because more kids are coming. They're higher energy and they want something to dance to and splash around to and run around to.
When I'm listening to music, my brain now is like, Oh that’d be great in the fountain! There’s a sort of rhythmic energy that the water has. So it has to have a certain amount of rhythmic energy. It could be an ambient track, but if there's something in the background that's giving a density that's like water…certain textural things will be great. Like I found dub reggae sounds amazing in the fountain.
Do you remember what the first mix was like and how things evolved from there?
I think it was just more all over the map. And then what I found was that kind of just takes people out of the moment of being at the fountain, so I favor more instrumental stuff. If we do a memorial mix, that's a whole other thing. Like for Prince and David Bowie, then it's just all Prince and all David Bowie. People are coming to hear the songs from artists that just passed away. But when it's not that kind of event, I'm trying to make background music that's inviting, and encourages people to interact with the fountain, and allows them to have their own experience of the water.
Whereas if you play a song, it's like, “Okay, now I'm listening to the song.” But with the instrumental stuff it's like, “Okay, I'm here at the fountain.” My stuff isn’t actually synched. But most people, a lot of people think it is. So then for me, that's doing my job well.
What is the future of the International Fountain mixes?
There are a lot of people with good musical knowledge and diverse backgrounds who will be overseeing things, and then I'll be in to help. The important thing is that people have the aesthetic insight. I’m happy to try and mentor people as much as I can: the technical aspects, the mastering and everything. We’re looking for DJs who can represent a lot of styles, and well.
Any final thoughts?
I’ve been really happy to serve the people of Seattle. I feel it was like a public art position where I was doing an installation work, an installation piece, for years.
Responses have been condensed and lightly edited for length and clarity.