If you lived in New York City in the nineties, had an interest in live underground music, and were active in any number of social and environmental causes, chances are you spent a night or two at Wetlands, the downtown rock club/activism center described by its founder Larry Bloch as a venue “built by Deadheads for Deadheads.”
Wetlands Preserved, the aptly titled new documentary combining interviews, live audio from seminal shows, and psychedelic animation sequences, premiered at New York City’s Cinema Village on March 14th. Amidst chaotic premiere week activities, author, cultural historian and now documentary-filmmaker Dean Budnick was able to talk to IDT’s Alexandra Bullen about the process of paying tribute to a place and a time gone by.
What was the first show you saw at Wetlands?
The first show I saw was New Potato Caboose in the spring of 1989. I was a law student at Columbia at the time and a friend of mine suggested we hop onto the subway and head down to this new venue.
It was a rather remarkable experience because Wetlands was unlike any music venue or any nightclub I had ever entered, let alone one in New York City. I remember being blown away by the use of space, in particular the downstairs lounge, which was something of the ultimate chill zone, decked out with pillows and the like. It very much reminded me of the basement in my parents’ house.
Were you first and foremost a fan of live music, or was it the club’s social activism component that drew you in?
While it was the music that drew me in, I was always impressed with the efforts of the Activism Center. Invariably, whenever I entered the club I would first wander over to the Earth Station (the locus of activism) to read about the Center’s latest acts of derring-do and pick up some literature.
How did the idea of a documentary about Wetlands come to you?
It had always been in the back of my mind that I might relate the story of the club but I had assumed I would do so in book form. On the final night of music at Wetlands in late September 2001, I drove my car down to the venue and spent the afternoon emptying out the club’s file cabinets and collecting material that might otherwise have been destroyed. It was an interesting and rather eerie experience as this was two weeks after 9/11 and there were police officers blocking traffic into that portion of lower Manhattan. I explained what I was up to and eventually they let my car through, where I pretty much had the streets to myself. It was rather somber and unsettling.
How long did the documentary take to complete? Was most of your work done in the editing room, or did you have a solid idea of structure and about which interviews would make up the bulk of the film from the beginning?
We started shooting in March of 2004 and quite honestly, we made one final meaningful pass earlier this month. Having said that though, the film mostly had arrived in its current form by the spring of 2006.
As for the structure, Wetlands Preserved first came together via a paper edit that I assembled in early 2005. While I was at SXSW last year I heard Doug Pray talking about how he edited Big Rig and his films in general. He mentioned that he arrived at his first cut by focusing exclusively on the audio, which is what I did as well.
We ended up with over 70 hours of interview footage. I transcribed all of it myself and while I was doing that, I began thinking about the structure. Speaking of which, I know many other writers and filmmakers who leave transcription up to interns and outside services but I take quite a bit away from the process as it allows me to wrap my head around the material.
The film features a number of former employees, all of whom seem to be eager to share their (for the most part) very fond memories. There was one memorable mention of a bar manager driven over the edge by a seemingly never-ending Disco Biscuits set. Were there more stories like this one that didn’t make it into the film?
The ones that didn’t make it into the film typically were stories that we just couldn’t edit to a workable length. There was a great story of The Roots’ Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson having a confrontation with P. Diddy, but it’s over five minutes in duration and ?uestlove really needs all five minutes to tell his story. Thankfully, that will find its way our DVD Extras along with many others, including [club owner] Larry Bloch’s introduction to Bob Dylan, which was proceeded by an immediate confrontation with Jakob Dylan over song selection during a DJ set, as well as something we call “Phish Averts a Group Puke.”
Was the decision not to include very much actual concert footage an intentional one, or was there a lack of available footage shot in the club to select from?
There simply was not enough high-quality video footage from the early days of the club. The footage that did exist was on deteriorating VHS tapes, which really allowed for only limited usage. What’s more, because of the nature of the club’s layout, in particular the tight space in front of the stage and the lack of a photo pit, much of the video was shot through a jostled camera with stray limbs occasionally obstructing the view.
How did the idea to incorporate the animation sections develop? What were you hoping they would add to the viewing experience?
The animation sequences emerged as something of a happy accident. They came into play to address the dearth of video footage. While we didn’t have much video, we did have the collections of the club’s two staff photographers as well as extensive audio archives.
My intent with those sequences was to evoke the essence of experiencing music in Wetlands. It would be a challenge in most any situation to translate live music onto film. but all the more so in this instance given our limited video resources. However, to my mind, the animations do a better job of capturing the various colors and tonalities of the Wetlands live music experience than simple introducing the old footage. I think the results feel three-dimensional and the alternative would have been flat and two-dimensional.
How involved were you in the animation component?
Typically what happened was I would give each animator the piece of music that I wanted to incorporate, along with photo stills and in a few rare instances, video footage. Then I offered some rough idea of the context in which the sequence would take place and at times I shared an idea or two.
In general, though, the animators retained their freedom of interpretation, which added a richness to the film through the varied visual treatments.
The club seems to have been very inclusive, both in terms of the acts showcased and the crowds of people these different acts drew. There doesn’t seem to have been very many clubs as successful or resilient with similarly broad appeal. How do you think Wetlands was able to last as long as it did, even amidst financial turmoil and the fast-changing trends in the NYC music scene?
I very much believe at the beginning it was a matter of Larry Bloch being a neophyte, who really didn’t even know how much he didn’t know. He bucked any and all trends to pursue his vision of what a music venue should offer. Such an approach is all the more rare these days with corporate ownership and entities leveraging multiple venues to land certain acts. It’s become much more of a numbers game.
Though the film touches on many artists spanning the different genres that played at Wetlands over the years, it seems to devote the most screen time to the jam-band scene. Do you think the jam-band community was more heavily involved in the other, more socially conscious branches of Wetlands work?
I think improvisational rock was deeply entwined within the DNA of the club. Still, beyond the personal appeal of that music to Larry, in terms of the club’s programming, there burned a deeper sense of righteous indignation that no genre of music should be denied a forum. That’s why Wetlands programmed hip-hop in the early ’90s at a time when few Manhattan clubs opted to do so. The Sunday all-ages hardcore shows were another staple. As talent buyer Chris Zahn describes in the film, even though most of the patrons were drinking free water and many of them were scuffing up the room, Larry remained committed to them on principle.
Frankly, Larry remained committed to any number of principles, some of which some folks have suggested crossed the border into eccentricity (paper straws, for instance).
I worked for a while in Tribeca at 99 Hudson Street, which I now realize must have been only a block away from where Wetlands was in Tribeca. Even though places like the Knitting Factory still exist down there, it’s incredible to think about how much the neighborhood has changed over the years. How much do you think the club’s closing was a result of financial strain and how much might it have been a reflection of the new wave of residents, upscale galleries, restaurants etc.?
I think the two are inextricably linked. We touch on this a bit in the film when Jimmy from Murphy’s Law describes how a neighborhood becomes desirable because of the presence of artists and musicians. However, as a result of that process, many of these artists and musicians are priced out of that neighborhood.
Why do you think it’s important that the story and history of Wetlands be told? Why now?
One of my goals in making this film was to demonstrate the Wetlands business model, whereby a for-profit enterprise can support a nonprofit venture. I am somewhat surprised that there haven’t been more entities created along these lines. Obviously it doesn’t make sense in all instances, but it does seem particularly well-suited to music venues (as well as coffee shops, restaurants and a range of small businesses).
In your director’s statement, you mention that your relationship with the club and Larry in some way specifically led you to move away from law and towards an advanced degree in American history. Can you talk about this a little bit?
I first attended Wetlands during a period in my life where I was trying to decide what to do with myself. I was in the midst of law school and while I enjoyed the intellectual challenges, I was fairly confident that I did not wish to become an attorney. Thankfully during this period I was living in New York City, which exposed me to all sorts of cultural opportunities, including some rather heady evenings at Wetlands. My experiences there were part of a process where I decided that in terms of a career path, it was my curiosities regarding American history and culture that really energized and animated me.
How did you find the experience of making a documentary film compared to your previous work as an author and editor? Do you have any plans to do another one?
First off, making a film obviously is a collaborative art. So much of writing a book or an article is isolated and internal that I often found it quite liberating to get out of the house and play with the other kids.
Another significant difference in this case was one of patience. When you write an article for magazine you may see it run a month or two later. When you write a book, after turning in the manuscript you typically know that you’ll be sharing it with the world in six to twelve months. By contrast, particularly for an independent filmmaker, there are just so many vagaries of the system. Along with the search for distribution one can get caught up in the festival circuit and the next thing you know, eighteen months have passed, which is the length of time between our festival premiere and the screening of Wetlands Preserved for general audiences in New York and Los Angeles.
As for another film, I think I have a few in me. But now that Wetlands Preserved is finally wrapped and locked, I’m just trying to take a deep breath and enjoy the moment before charging into the future.