It took almost three years longer than expected, but North West filmmaker and musician Clyde Petersen finished Even hell has its heroes, a 108-minute documentary about Seattle’s innovative rock band, Earth. The world is awash with documentaries about the musicians, but Petersen’s opus eschews the art form’s all-too-familiar tropes and captures the majestic, enigmatic essence of this Pacific Northwest institution with an approach as oblique as the music of Earth, plus a few moments of levity amid the irresistible gravity of Earth’s conflicting history.
Avoiding talking heads and cameo comments from high-profile music industry figures, Petersen, who also directed the short Torrey pines— instead interviews nearly everyone who has performed, produced, and released Earth-heavy, cinematic music. The interviews are invariably interesting and sometimes revealing, and yes, Earth leader Dylan Carlson talks about his friendship with Kurt Cobain. Petersen cleverly portrays each musician’s idiosyncrasies through the settings and actions of their Q&A sessions. Which makes even hell unique is that Petersen arranged for each musician he interviewed to compose a track for the soundtrack and then use said track to score their segment.
Petersen led Earth from 2008 to 2013 and has been a fan since the band’s origins in the early 90s. rock and zoned americana. Petersen took the time to prepare his large-scale sculpture for Seattle Art Fair to answer a few questions about Even hell has its heroes by email.
THE STRANGER: When I interviewed you for Slog in 2018, you expected to finish Even hell has its heroes in a little over a year. It obviously took longer than that to complete. What made the movie not finished until 2022?
CLYDE PETERSEN: I was able to shoot a lot of the movie in 2018 and 2019, but at the end of 2019 I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and I got very sick for a while. It took a while to bounce back, then a global pandemic hit and my home in Seattle was evicted. So the short answer is: life. At that point, I was resigned to going a little slower because the pandemic changed everything in terms of travel. I had to ask people from London, Montana and Los Angeles to help me film some scenes and interview people by phone or Zoom. I was sending a camera all over the world with blank rolls of film. What I felt most fortunate of was that we recorded the soundtrack in 2019, so we did it before the pandemic.
Did you make the doc to appeal to die-hard devotees or in an effort to gain new Earth fans? My feeling is that it’s more of the former, as there’s no narrator to guide you through the band’s career and impose a linear career arc on the audience. You pretty much have to have some familiarity with Earth to get a feel for what’s going on.
My goal was to work with Super 8mm films and collaborate with Earth on a piece that represents them. I don’t particularly work on projects with an audience in mind, rather with the goal of creating work that I’m proud of. I try not to dwell on what people will think of the film. I consider it a time capsule more than a traditional talking head, a kind of linear documentary. I don’t like watching movies that hold your hand all the time. I want people to watch the movie, take what they want out of it, and let it lead them to their own understanding and relationship with Earth music.
Was the soundtrack composed entirely of previously unreleased works commissioned for even hell? If so, it was a drastic move, as one would imagine many Earth fans would want to hear from old favorites. Amusing observation: I Shazamed the music over the end credits and the app told me it was “Deepest Healing Intense Phase 2” by 528hz. WHAT?!
I love that you Shazam this and that’s what came out. [The track is actually Earth’s “A Glorious Defeat.”]
Doing a documentary about a band like Earth, with so many albums on so many labels, can be very expensive in terms of paying to use the masters of the songs. Most labels have owned the masters for a long time, so rather than dwell on fundraising to pay for old tracks, we took the opportunity to create a brand new album. The soundtrack will also be released in the future. Plus, hardcore Earth fans get new songs to enjoy. Earth music is an ideal cinematic experience. At the studio, I was able to show them sequences or preliminary cuts and they composed for the film.
Some people who did not appear in even hell include Joe Preston (bass/percussion on Extra-capsular extraction), Kelly Canary (Extra-capsular extraction), Nick Cambern (drummer on a piece of Phase 3), Ian Dickson (bass/guitar on pentastar), Sean McElligot (guitar on pentastar), Mike Deming (organ on pentastar), Dave Harwell (bass on Earth 2), Dan Tyack (lap and pedal steel on hexagon), Kevin Martin (aka the Bug, who collaborated with Earth on concrete desert), Rabia Qazi (voice on Primitive and deadly), and the late Mark Lanegan (vocals on Primitive and deadly). Any interesting reasons why they didn’t get screen time? Any particularly heartbreaking omissions among them?
I wanted to include as many people as possible. Some people refused; some were interviewed but got taken off the grid and never signed the film’s release, so I couldn’t use their interview, and some people died. Mark Lanegan was lined up to do an interview, but it didn’t happen in time. It was a really sad experience. Sean McElligot passed away a while ago, but Michael McDaniel told me incredible stories about him. A few people just never responded. A few people took years to be ready to talk, but they finally did. Groups are like families. They often contain a lot of emotions and baggage. Some people don’t want to travel backwards in their minds. That’s a big ask. Not all memories are good.
Why did you decide to shoot the opening scene at the Wayside Chapel in Sultan, Washington?
I was born in Index, Washington, and grew up walking past this little church all the time. It was originally built for the Seattle World’s Fair so that tourists visiting the city could “pause, rest and worship,” as the sign states. It’s always been an interesting space for me. I see Earth as a band that worships music, so it seemed appropriate to call Dylan and [longtime Earth drummer Adrienne Davies] there to play. It’s part of our Northwest history.
What was Angelina Baldoz’s inspiration for setting these guitars on fire?
I think Angelina is the most experimental musician to have played on Earth over the years. It reaches places that most musicians cannot imagine. The sound and visual of guitars on fire seemed most appropriate for his interview. For the scene with his interview, we filmed in Golden Gardens on a summer night. The guitars we burned had already been used by Jonas Haskins as boat oars in an earlier scene at Rattlesnake Lake.
Did making this film change your thoughts about the music of Earth or the people behind it?
What I mainly take away from this project is that capitalism is a brutal beast. No one survived the age of grunge and the hype it created unscathed, if they survived it. People have lost dear friends or their own lives; so many people have struggled with addiction and gone through some really tough experiences. The people who remain don’t all want to remember that time. It’s like, as fun as it is, it took them twice as long.
In our 2018 interview, you said you wanted to make the Pacific Northwest a character in the movie, and I think you nailed it. What feature of the PNW do you think best reflects the music of Earth?
There is a slowness, heaviness and patience to the music of the Earth that is found in the Northwest landscape, especially as you head towards the peninsula. The members of the Earth are old shoots in the landscape of a changed Seattle. Like the rings of a tree, they contain memories of spaces and people that no longer exist in our realm.
Besides the financial difficulties, what was the most difficult aspect of making even hell?
In many ways, I feel like I’ve just wiped some dust off the Earth book jacket. I could make this movie forever. When I finished it I thought, well now I can see in retrospect what I would do differently the second time around. Maybe one day we’ll make a book with all the ridiculous stories from the tour. I have 40 hours of interviews, but the film is only 108 minutes long. It was deeply difficult to choose what could stay and what should be cut for the time. I would like to do a longer piece one day. There is never enough time, money or energy all at once.
Another challenge in making the film was creating a space where people could talk about anything and feel safe. I do this job because I care about them as people. Separating their real experiences from the myth surrounding the band was a big part of the interview process. Being open about difficult events or grief in Earth’s history was something I hoped the band would be willing to do, and we found our way there, but it was part of the groundwork that Was there, for sure.
Will be even hell screen in Seattle soon? Do you have a confirmed premiere?
I’m submitting to the biggest film festivals this summer, but you can never control that stuff. Festivals are a finicky kind, and they often require exclusive premiere statuses. Maybe some experimental film nerd will be on the panel at Sundance and help me out. We never know. The Northwest Film Forum has been really supportive of me and is excited to screen it in 2023. My main goal is to get it into the hands of fans on Earth. They are the ones who supported the project, encouraged me and helped me finish the film. And if Errol Morris and John Lurie were to watch this movie somehow, that would make me pretty happy.
What are you currently working on and in the near future, cinematographic or otherwise?
I built a large scale sculpture for the Seattle Art Fair. It will be on display from Thursday to Sunday. After that, I head to the recording studio to finish the new Your heart is breaking album for Kill Rock Stars.
The movie Earth will also have a special release with a 100-page stills book and DVD. I’m designing it and will send it to press this fall. You can pre-order it here.
After all this, I will lie down for a month, sleep and read a pile of books. I have another stop motion feature in the works, Our country forbidsbut I’m going to take a short break before coming back to it.