Music from the ashes: Boulder Creek band films video amid wildfire wreckage
Wolf Jett was primed for a busy year of touring pre-pandemic. Then wildfire took their prized studio and performance site, known as the Hill House. What they did next was the stuff of resilience, inspiration and healing.
On a warm October afternoon, just as he had done countless times before, Jon Payne invited a group of musicians and friends to play music at his picturesque hilltop home near Boulder Creek.
He and his wife Elizabeth regularly hosted house concerts there, and Payne, a drummer who played in several bands, often jammed in his own custom-made recording studio at the house.
This time, however, was unusual. Everyone who was invited showed up. What was missing was the house.
On Aug. 20, the Paynes’ home was destroyed in the catastrophic CZU Lightning Complex fires. Six weeks later — on an ominous day promising hot winds that, if they did not spread new fire, might stir up ash and other dangerous matter in the air — Jon Payne set up his drums in what used to be the bedroom he shared with Elizabeth, now exposed to the elements.
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His bandmates in the blues/folk group Wolf Jett stood amidst the twisted and burnt debris of the fire. The vocal trio The T Sisters made room behind a mic stand in the wreckage. A film crew, after laying 90 feet of track for a dolly shot, was poised to capture the moment.
Then the music started.
The camera pans down from the top of the still-standing stone chimney against a hazy gray sky. It alights on singer Chris Jones on the acoustic guitar performing his own song, with Payne and the rest of the band lending support behind him.
I want to kill this garden of pain
Wanna tear it all down and start over again
Build up a dream from the dead remains
And bathe the ground in the pouring rain.
The recording of the moment was posted on YouTube on Nov. 7, and since then, Wolf Jett’s performance of “Garden of Pain” has attracted more than 13,000 views.
The song was not written to reflect the tragedy of the fire. It is, in fact, more than a year old, and was to be part of a big year for Wolf Jett, a new album and a full summer of touring, all shelved because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But with its themes of loss and renewal, “Garden” sounds like it was written right there, in the charred ruins of the house everyone called Hill House.
“It was something we needed to do,” said Payne of that emotionally charged October day. “It’s something we loved doing, especially at that house where we had recorded so many people, including our own band multiple times. It just seemed right to me to have this one kind of send-off before all the rubble is removed and something new goes up there.”
Singer/songwriter Jones also had a deep relationship with the house. He was, in fact, living with the Paynes at the time of the fire, and before had helped Payne, a childhood friend, build the recording studio. The two friends were displaced, living in a hotel shortly after the fire, when Payne took an attentive re-listen to “Garden of Pain,” a song Jones had written to reflect his healing from other traumas in his life. They were, said Payne, depressed, lost, unmotivated.
“When I listened back to it, man, it just hit,” he said. “It sounds like it was written for the moment. I said to (Jones), ‘Did you predict this, or what?’”
“All of a sudden, it meant what it was supposed to be meaning all along,” said Jones.
By the time of the scheduled video shoot, Payne and Jones had been to the post-fire site several times, but some of the other musicians and video crew members had not seen the devastation first-hand.
Also adding to the emotional weight of the moment was director Justin Kohlberg and cinematographer Joshua Pausanos’s decision to shoot the video on 16-mm film and in one continuous take. “I try to shoot on film as much as I can,” said Kohlberg. “Josh and I are on the same level with that. We just love the feeling of film, the colors, the aesthetic.”
Shooting on film is expensive enough that it created some real limitations for the shoot. To make the video like he wanted to make it, Kohlberg had to raise money as well as in-kind donations of equipment and supplies. With digital technology, he could have taken as many takes as possible to get what he wanted. With the film stock he had on hand, however, he had two, maybe three chances to get it right.
“That’s part of why I love film,” he said. “Because of the limitations, you get more creative.” As for the risk of not getting the shot before running out, he said, “It’s always in the back of your mind. That’s the game you play with film. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
The limited film stock meant also that Kohlberg could not do edits or cut-aways. His crew installed 90 feet of track on which he could do camera movement and shoot the song in one unedited take.
For the band, knowing they had only three chances to get what they wanted enhanced the immediacy of the performance. “The first take was something good,” said Jones. “The second take was something better. And the third take, I really got there, I think. It was one of those magical moments where time kinda stops and I got all these beautiful people surrounding me doing this incredible thing that is so painful for all of us.”
At his drum kit, Payne was not particularly emotional, at first. He had been on this property nearly every day since the fire. He had also escorted others onto the site and often would have to experience someone else’s sorrow at seeing it for the first time. He had become familiarized to the scene such that the day of the video shoot, he was not as emotionally triggered as his friends the T Sisters, two of whom had not seen the damage before that moment.
“I was really focused on the task at hand,” he said, “until we started filming it. Then, when we were finally playing the music for real, it did hit me and I had to hold back tears at one point.”
As the final chord of the song fades, the video for “Garden of Pain” lingers for several seconds on the musicians as they gather themselves and come down from the emotional high of the performance. “There was a kind of stillness,” said Jones, “just a moment when everyone was kind of quiet and peaceful. Instead of a joyous ‘Yes! We did it!,’ we were all just kind of amazed. I can’t believe we just did that. It was almost like relief.”
That lingering moment suggests that the world will move on from this tragedy. Indeed, the Paynes plan to rebuild on the site. The Hill House, constructed in the 1970s and reflecting that era, is gone forever, but they hope to re-create something very much like it.
“I really loved that house,” said Jon Payne. “It had a style that I just loved, and I really hope to honor that in some way, keep some of the charm that I liked.” (Other videos from Wolf Jett on YouTube were shot inside the house last fall, giving viewers a sense of what was lost.)
Payne actually owned the original blueprints of the house but — the tragic ironies keep unfolding — they were lost in the fire. The son of the original builder, however, who grew up on the property had become friendly with Payne and had attended house concerts there.
That man — oddly enough, like Wolf Jett’s lead singer, also named Christopher Jones — is now a contractor himself. Payne said that he’d like to rebuild with the son of the man who built the first version of the house. His plans are to rebuild the recording studio and a ceramics studio for Elizabeth.
“With loss comes opportunity,” he said. “I never necessarily wanted to build my own house, but now there’s an opportunity to go through that process, and I’m trying to embrace it. I would love to go back and not have to deal with any of this. Since that’s not an option, I’m just going to embrace bringing my heart into this and building it from scratch.”
The new video will most likely be forever and always the definitive version of that song. How could it not be? But Payne vows that it won’t be the last song sung on the spot, that once the home is rebuilt, music will ring the surrounding hills once again.
“That’s going to be a triumphant moment, for sure. I want to build a stage outside, and hopefully when we’re past this COVID stage, we’ll have friends over and we’ll have music back in the community. It’s going to be a great party.”